I should have seen what was wrong with the scene sooner than I did.
That Saturday morning was gorgeous. The sun was strong, there wasn’t a single cloud visible. A gentle breeze delicately rippled the surface of the water, the lazy waves shimmering. The sky above was an ethereal cobalt, stretching on forever. As I looked up into that blue eternity, I felt at home in the universe, experiencing a rare tranquillity. In the chaos of daily life, I cherish these brief moments of euphoria — the occasional understanding that all will be okay.
The salty sea air stung my nostrils. I inhaled deeply, sighing to myself. This is what life’s all about, I thought. Everything else is just secondary. The pier was warm beneath my bare feet, and I took a moment to enjoy the golden sunshine that kissed my already-bronzed skin. I stretched on the wooden slats as I surveyed the scene. On the horizon, a couple of boats dipped and nodded on the lethargic currents, nothing more than black specks in the shimmering azure. The coast was mostly empty, in spite of the good weather. It was, after all, very early in the morning. Further down the beach, I could see an old man walking his dog. He waved in my direction, and I snapped off a salute in response. On the other side, a blonde woman was laying out her own diving gear. At the first sight of her, my heart jolted inside my chest. I quickly scolded myself. It’s not her, you old fool. You know it’s not her. It’s been over a decade. I raised my hand to wave at the woman, but she either didn’t see me or chose not to respond. By the look of it, she was also planning on doing a solo dive.
They say to never dive alone and to always have a diving buddy with you. I know that it’s not much of an excuse, but I’d dived alone a thousand times before without incident. I knew that each time I dived could be the one time I experienced trouble, and that I was simply tempting fate. But each successful solo dive gave me more and more false confidence — I believe it is called survivorship bias. So, that was broken rule number one.
I picked up my gear and slipped into my wetsuit, checking my equipment before saddling it on. At least that was one rule I didn’t break. There’s only so much risk you can take, right? I wasn’t stupid, just overconfident. And perhaps I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. After all, they do say that the majority of car accidents happen close to your home.
I was only planning on doing a fairly shallow dive. PADI strongly advises against breaking your planned depth or diving time, but to say that I had a plan for my dive that morning would be a great overstatement. I just wanted to spend some time kicking around in the water, and I knew the area very well. It wasn’t as if I were diving blindly or attempting a particularly dangerous dive. Broken rule number two.
I gasped as I hit the water, but it wasn’t an unpleasant shock. In all my years of diving, I’ve come to love that first chill that seems to pull the very breath from your lungs. It wakes you up like nothing else, cleansing your mind. The clarity of thought that one experiences after that icy jolt is like nothing else that I’ve ever experienced. It’s like a high, almost, and I can see why adrenaline junkies chase after similar feelings.
The visibility beneath the waves as I plunged into that rolling blue was startling; I could see in every direction, unhindered. It’s a delightful feeling, being suspended in that magical kingdom far removed from mankind’s oily hands. I think it’s no surprise that my happiest dreams are of the flowing ocean. Or at least they were.
I began to swim out from the coast, watching as the ocean floor fell away beneath me. If you’ve never experienced it before, such a sight can be quite unnerving. You can feel quite vulnerable, floating out there in the open ocean, with miles of nothing on all sides and an endless drop beneath you. The mind can play tricks on a person. What swims down there? Does it have fins? Does it have tentacles? How big is it? Does it have great, monstrous eyes the size of a man? How fast is it? Could I outswim it, if needed? How many teeth does it have? Does it view me as food? And so on. If you want to keep diving, you either must push the thoughts away or learn to live with them. Personally, I strike a balance between the two. The more you dive, the more you learn that the perceived big nasties of the seas rarely mean humans any harm. Oh, sure, seeing a shark or a squid up close is a nerve-wracking experience, but nine times out of ten they are no danger. So, naturally, with each successful dive under your belt comes a reduction in what I like to call ‘ocean anxieties’. Still, I’m not completely impervious to these notions, they’re just fewer and far between. And when they do come, I try to not fixate on them. I am, after all, only human.
About five minutes after entering the water, I began to get the sensation that I was being watched. Now, the feeling of being observed is a scary feeling when you’re out of the water, but let me tell you, when you’re in the water it’s a thousand times worse. I spun around, hands and feet gliding through the world as if trapped in treacle, fully expecting to come face-to-face with one of the ocean’s great predators. Instead, I found nothing. Far away, close to the shoreline, I saw a mixture of blonde and black. The woman I’d seen earlier had evidently just entered the water. Strangely, she hadn’t done anything with her hair, and it was floating about her head like golden seaweed. This is a big topic of discussion amongst female divers, as you never want to get tangled or ensnared with your own equipment. Or worse, caught on something else. I shrugged. Perhaps she was new to all of this. Whatever, it probably wasn’t my place to say, and I was a strange man; I didn’t want to creep her out. I did one last rotation, just to make sure I wasn’t being trailed by a great white or a bull shark or something equally as scary. Once I’d given myself the all clear, I went along my way.
I knew where I was going, as I’d been there a hundred times over the years. There was an old WW2 wreckage not too far from the shore. It had been sunk whilst it was in fairly shallow waters. I forget now whether it was torpedoed or bombed by plane. However which way the ship had gotten there, the old skeleton was now a rusted artificial reef, covered in sprouting corals and swarming with shoals of fish. It was really something to see, and always gave me pause for thought whenever I gazed at it. There’s just something mystical about one of man’s mechanical creations lying destroyed on the seabed, reclaimed by the nature that it attempted to tame. There are other sights like it, throughout the planet’s seven seas, but this was the one I came back to most often — mostly because I lived within driving distance of it. The fact that that it’s not too far from civilisation means that it’s the closest landmark that offers the human brain a chance to clear its cache — to regain its perspective, to realign itself with what really matters, to put a pin in the overinflated ego. I think people’s minds can get so clogged up with jobs and money, objects and junk, that we forget how impermanent we are, how unimportant we are.
It was a popular diving spot, especially with the intermediate crowd — those divers who aren’t complete novices and are just starting to test their limits with more technical dives. Still, it wasn’t a hard dive by any stretch of the imagination, and beginners often tagged along with more experienced buddies. I’d been there first with Emily, back when I was new to the whole business. God, how I miss her. Cancer’s a bastard.
At least nobody can see your tears when you’re under the water.
The thermocline hit me like an invisible wall. The waters around me dropped in temperature rapidly, as if I’d just swam into a pocket of ice. The chill flooded through my body, bleeding my heat away. Extremities tingling and buzzing, I pushed on through, knowing the temporary discomfort would soon pass as I acclimated to the lower temperatures. I’ve come to learn that its exact depth fluctuates depending on the time of year, the temperature, the weather, and all manner of other factors. Still, I was a little bit shocked to encounter it so early on. I trembled as the second shiver of my dive rippled through my body, but carried on swimming. Little did I know, it wouldn’t be the last surprise.
By my own estimations, I was about ten minutes away from the old wreckage. As I swam at a leisurely pace, my breathing audible through the regulator lodged firmly in my mouth, I began to notice something swimming upward in the distance. Now, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but I know a school of fish when I see one. These fish were all manner of yellows and blues — most likely yellow tangs and damselfish, as they liked to call the corals that sprung up around the wreckage home. But the question was, what were they doing? Even from my distant point, I could tell they were swimming in a panicked motion.
A frown beginning to furrow my brow, I stopped and started to tread water.
And then it came to me. They were fleeing.
Starting to feel a little nervous, I remained there, kicking at the water, waiting, watching. Animals are smart — if you see them acting odd, you should pay attention. They are often imparting valuable information with their actions. If there was a predator in the nearby vicinity, I didn’t want to swim towards it. If there was a big bad in the water, I wanted to see it clearly, and ideally before it saw me. Not being childishly afraid of the creatures of the depths is one thing, being foolish and putting yourself in the way of danger is another thing entirely.
After a few minutes of treading water — seven-and-a-half minutes, by my watch’s count — I saw nothing. No looming shadow in the distance, no lurking silhouettes just on the periphery of my vision. Fish can get riled up by nothing — a change in thermal currents, a slight tremor from moving tectonic plates, a sudden abundance of food nearby. Perhaps it wasn’t something to get too concerned about, although I was keenly aware that the scattered fish hadn’t yet returned to their homes, and damselfish are fiercely territorial. All about me, shimmering silvers, yellows, blues and pinks hung about in groups, darting this way and that, eyeing the flippered alien in their midst.
I slowly twisted around, to get a look above, below and behind me, just on the off chance that something was creeping up on me, trying to catch me unaware. I saw no monster from the deep, just lots of displaced coral reef fish and, in the distance, the blonde-haired diver I’d spied earlier. She was, evidently, also coming out to the old WW2 wreckage. Although, if her loose hair indicated her lack of experience, what she was doing coming out here alone was beyond me. Granted, I was also alone, but, then again, I was quite experienced. Well, whatever, I’d just keep my eye on her and make sure she didn’t get herself into any difficulties.
I resumed my course, bound for the rusting wreckage.
The view of the ruined naval ship awed me as it always did, lying down there in two wholly separate pieces, but it was hard to shake the pervading sense of nervousness that seemed to underline everything. I hovered above the downed vessel, amazed at the size of the thing as usual, but also feeling naked. Vulnerable. Exposed. I was irritated with myself for having let my mind get the better of me, tainting what was usually a meditative experience.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw the familiar sight of the female diver, blonde hair floating in every which direction. I shook my head, tutting to myself. How she saw anything was a miracle. She was quite close now and had started to drop down to the wreckage. What was she thinking?
A little bit annoyed, I groaned into my regulator and started to descend with her. If she was a newbie, I didn’t want her to hurt herself. I’d delay my return to shore a little bit, until she left. We look out for our own when we’re down there.
I followed her descent, marvelling at how fast she was. She might be new to diving but she certainly wasn’t new to swimming. Her strokes were strong and efficient, and I struggled to keep up with her. She reached the ship long before me, and thus, I was unable to stop her.
She reached one of the many gaping holes in the hull of the ship…
And slipped into the darkness.
If it weren’t for the regulator clenched between my teeth, I would have sworn out loud. Entering wreckages is a big no-no; leave that to the experts. You could snag yourself, damage your tank, puncture a pipe or line — anything. It’s incredibly dangerous, even for an experienced diver.
I kicked harder and shot towards the ship like a bullet, aiming for the yawning puncture wound through which she had entered. Twisted metal snarled in every direction around the cavity, sharp and rusted. With gritted teeth, I approached, not wanting to enter but not wishing any harm to befall the intrepid beginner.
The darkness was looming, the water was motionless. There was a preternatural still about the place, as if a hush had fallen over everything. Almost as if the ocean itself were waiting for some great event to happen.
Slowly, I edged towards the hole, trying to remember how long it’d been since I’d had a tetanus shot. I hovered outside for a moment, peering within. I couldn’t make out a goddamned thing inside — how had she entered without using a torch? I was about to grab my dive light when a glint of metal caught my eye.
She was hovering just inside the hull of the ship, watching me. The shine came from a necklace dangling from her neck.
Seeing that she was seen, the woman slowly started to emerge from the sheared metal hole, moving with the agile grace of a veteran diver. How had I ever thought her to be a novice? Loose hair or not, she glided unhindered. The shape of her body in the black swimsuit was familiar, the colour of her hair — on both land and in water — was similar. And… she was reaching for me, with one extended hand.
Could it be?
The necklace glinted again, and now that we were closer, I could see it in more detail. I would recognise that necklace anywhere; it was the one I’d buried her in.
It was Emily! I didn’t know how it could be, but it was! She was back! She wasn’t dead, she hadn’t died, she was here, she was here, she was here! And she was reaching for me, searching for me, wanting to touch my skin again after a decade of loneliness, a decade apart and—
And then the realisation hit me, immediately and all at once. Something I should have spotted immediately.
There were no bubbles coming from her regulator.
The blood turned to ice in my veins.
The hand was still reaching for me, only now it didn’t possess her smooth, pale skin. It looked bloated and rotten, the nails dirty and broken. A feeling of revulsion coiled within my gut.
And now that she was nearer, I realised I was unable see into her dive mask, I couldn’t see her eyes. It was all steamed up, obscuring her face. Around her head, her blonde hair floated like a million writhing snakes. I gazed into that misted up mask, not wanting to see what lay beneath that condensation yet wholly unable to look away.
I knew what was coming a second before it did, and, consequently, I was able to escape with my life.
A shriek pierced my ears — impossible, I know — and it lunged for me with hungry claws.
Fortunately, I had already begun to push away from the rusted hull of the wreck, and the thing in the black swimsuit missed catching me by mere centimetres. But not before I finally caught a peek of what lay behind that now-demisted scuba mask. Gnarled, rotten flesh, mad eyes, drowned, bloated, twisted features.
That split-second glimpse will remain seared into my mind’s eye until the day I die.
I turned and swam as fast as I could, kicking like a maniac against the water, wanting to reach the shore as quickly as possible, decompression sickness be damned.
I still haven’t gone back into the water.
17th April 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest